I participated in a panel in Chicago last month along with some other publishing pros whom I really respect. We were discussing the ins and outs of literary agents—what it’s like to be one, how to work with one, why to work with an agent, and so on. The conversation also covered such things as how to get published, including what publishers are looking for in authors.
Of course, all of us on the panel agreed that the material must be top-notch. Whether fiction or nonfiction, literary agents, editors, and publishers all want a captivating manuscript that sucks us in and doesn’t let go.
Where those of us on the panel differed was whether the author’s platform matters. I argued that it does matter, as much as I hate it. In contrast, another panelist shot back that it’s a “fallacy” that platform matters.
As much as I do like to hear that platform doesn’t matter at least to some publishing pros, I can’t say that has been my experience. Throughout my career, both as a full-time editor at a top publishing company and as a literary agent, the concept of platform has long been driving the go–no go conversation when it comes to whether to work with an author. Of course the story has to be good. The concept has to be fresh and exciting. The writing has to be clean and compelling. Those crucial points aren’t debatable.
The question is whether platform matters or whether its importance is a fallacy.
The answer is that it matters.
To wit, I share here some comments from editors and publishers regarding various projects I’ve pitched recently:
- “This sounds like a great book, but we look for authors who have a good chance of driving sales of 10k-20k copies in the first year to their clients, prospects, and audiences.”
- “I really liked reading about [the authors’ approach to their topic]—I thought they were a smart and insightful way to structure their content. In the end, however, I am concerned that the authors’ platforms are still in the early stages of development and their national exposure might not be significant enough just yet to help break out the book commercially in a big way.”
- “I have looked over the proposal … and want to thank you very much for allowing me to take a look at what you and [the author] have put together. I want to be honest right off the bat here and say that I unfortunately don’t think this book is a fit for our list. [The author’s] platform is too small for us at this time … HOWEVER, despite the fact that I don’t think this will work for [NYC-based publisher], I wanted to express my enthusiasm for not only what [the author] does for so many different people, but also for what this book is and will be. From the moment I finished reading through this proposal, I knew that I would absolutely purchase this book.”
That is, this particular editor would purchase the book that would have to be published by someone else because the editor’s house wouldn’t buy the project because the author’s platform was too small.
An author’s platform doesn’t drive the publishing decision? Not so much a fallacy.
The truth is that platform matters. Perhaps this is, indeed, more true for nonfiction than fiction, but I highly doubt that any agent, editor, or publisher would deny that an author with an impressive platform, an author who has built a loyal community of fans and followers, an author who can drive sales doesn’t have an edge over an unknown writer without a platform, without a community, or without any avenues through which to push copies of his or her book.
Agents, editors, and publishers want to know that the authors they’re working with are known as subject-matter experts; that they have deep reach into a built-in audience; that they have a core community of readers, fans, and followers with whom they frequently engage. This includes but also goes well beyond a thriving social media community. Having legions of fans and followers on Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the like is important. But it’s just the start. Giving dozens of speeches, lectures, and presentations every year is important. But it’s just part of it. Being published in blogs, journals, magazines, and newspapers (whether print or digital) is important. But that’s just part of the picture. All of those things—and more—must work in tandem to help you become known to readers who will be waiting with baited breath for your book to publish.
Publishing is a risky business—and it is a business. Agents, editors, and publishers are more willing to take a risk on a project—and just about every book project is, indeed, a risk—if they believe that the author has a platform that will help sell books.
A good story is a must.
Platform as fallacy … not so much.
February 22, 2016